We have begun a series entitled relationship reboot that’s all about refreshing our relationships so that we can create lasting marriages and families. This series also has a lot to do with other kinds of relationships that involve friends and family members. Last week we talked about becoming mature and how growing emotionally and spiritually helps us become the kind of people who are able to have healthy relationships. It begins with us and when we are growing emotionally and spiritually, we find that we have greater resources and insights that help us be a better friend or partner or spouse. This week we are going to examine how building a friendship helps couples stay connected and build not just emotionally but also physical intimacy. The Bible speaks often about a one flesh relationship. What does that even mean?
There is a story in the beginning of the Bible that tells about how God created the first human. God noted that it was not good for the man to be alone. Instead of simply creating a woman, God allowed the man to discover that he needed a companion. In the story, we see God bringing all of the animals before the man asking him to give them each a name. As each species came, two by two, the man noticed something. He noticed that all of the other species had a partner accept him. It was like the man was asking God, where is my partner?
So having created this longing, we see God responding by creating a woman to be his partner. Adam is filled with joy and says this to God, “she is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. God invites the first couple into a One Flesh Relationship.
Some call this the first marriage.
We also hear Jesus when responding to the Pharisee’s questions about marriage and divorce, restating the value of a One Flesh Relationship. In the same way the apostle Paul also revisits the goal of a one flesh relationship. As least three times we see the Bible speaking about a one flesh relationship.
Becoming one flesh is not about merging into another human being and losing oneself but rather it is about two human beings who built an intimate relationship with one another. Neither loses themselves to the other but the two live as one in communion and cooperation.
The Bible also often says that so and so knew his wife and she became pregnant. The word know in the Hebrew language is quite interesting. It has implications for sexual union and for emotional union in a relationship. When we think of knowing God too, we think of being in union with God. We are in God’s presence, we have a relationship with God that is real and intimate. Perhaps not in the same way as a couple has intimacy but the union of a couple is often a metaphor for union with God.
Having said all of that and laying a spiritual foundation for this message I ask the question, just what does it mean for a couple to grow in a one flesh relationship? How do they come to union? How do two very different people join their lives and live together in a healthy relationship.
First, they build a solid friendship that helps them remain connected through Love Maps.
Part of remaining connected is emotional connection. This happens as couples share their lives with one another. When a couple first meets and begins dating, they naturally share their lives. They ask questions of one another, learn about one another and hear one another’s stories and dreams. In the same way, a couple who is married also continues to share their lives together. They continue to create what researcher and author John Gottman describes as love maps.
A love map is the map of their partner’s inner world. A wife or husband knows who their spouse’s friends are, the people who annoy them at work, the struggles or challenges happening in their lives as well as their partner’s on-going life story. Partners also know their spouses dreams and values.
These love maps happen when couples ask open-ended questions and continue to learn about their partner’s lives. An open-ended question is a question that invites a conversation. It is not a simple yes or no question. A yes or no questions is: did you pay the electric bill or do you want to eat lunch? An open ended question opens the heart.
Example: How are you enjoying your job during this time of your life? Or, what do you like best about being a mom or a dad or a grandparent? If you could do anything you wanted to do and have the means, what would that be? How are you feeling about being a parent of teens? What is the greatest struggle you are having in your life right now? How did the interview go? What is going well in your business? What was the best part of your day today? What was the worst part of your day?
These kinds of open ended questions help couples or friends or family connect learning about one another.
One specific habit to form is to have what is called a Stress-reducing conversation. This is a conversation that can take place at the end of the evening or when a couple returns from work or at any time that it is needed.
A stress-reducing conversation involves taking turns to share about one’s day—the stressful parts etc. Then the listening partner validates the speaker and takes the side of their partner. Feelings are validated. It can sound like this, “wow, I can see why you were so angry when your boss misunderstood you.”
Often we think that we need to fix our partner’s experience or give advice but in reality, we only need to empathize with them and validate their feelings and experience. Funny thing is that this does fix things. As your partner is heard and validated, they tend to feel a bit better.
If you don’t know what to say, there are a few questions that can help. How can I help? Or what do you need from me? Often times your partner may say, they don’t need anything… just to be held or to have a hug. Sometimes it is just a need to be heard. Being heard can feel like being loved.
Second, Building a solid friendship involves developing habits of fondness and admiration.
Building fondness involves letting your partner know that you love them and that they are special to you. Saying it to them is enormously important. Let them know how you feel and say it often.
Building admiration involves letting them know you admire and appreciate them. It begins with noticing. I noticed how you were playing with the baby, you are a wonderful dad the way you take time to play. I am grateful that you loaded the dishwasher, Thank you. I appreciate that you keep the car running smoothly. I am grateful for how you supported me through that difficult interview. Expressing appreciation is very important in building a solid friendship. Everyone likes to be appreciated and admired especially by the one who matters most.
I'll tell you the truth, at first it seem really awkward, especially if this has not been a habit. Often we have a critical mind and we look more often for things to criticize. It takes practice to retrain your mind to see the good in another person. It also takes a fair bit of humility to be comfortable with expressing fondness toward another person. It takes humility to express admiration as well.
Humility and practice. In our couples class we ask the couples to think of three things they admire about their partner. It’s always fun to see their partners light up when appreciate is expressed. It’s a way that we can build our partner up.
Third, This brings us to Turning Towards.
Research shows that couples who turn towards their partner when they are speaking most of the time have a longer lasting relationship. Turning toward is simply responding when your spouse asks a question, or saying good bye when leaving. Turning towards is easy to do. Many couples develop good-bye rituals that involve saying good bye, or kissing good bye etc. Turning towards is often as easy as letting your partner know in some way that you have heard them. Turning away involves not responding when your partner is engaging with you.
Fourth, All of these actions put little deposits in what Dr. Gottman calls the Love Bank.
When the love bank is full, the relationship tends to be very positive. As the love bank empties, it is harder to remain positive. Fondness and admiration, love maps and stress-reducing conversations help put a lot of deposits in the love bank. This moves the relationship to a positive state within which it is easier to manage conflict. This positive state Dr. Gottman calls positive sentiment over-ride. Positive sentiment over-ride is when a person sees the relationship in a positive light and even a bit of sarcasm is taken lightly–like a joke. This is the state within which complaints are taken less personally and the relationship is in an overall positive state.
Sometimes couples are so conflicted that the relationship is in a negative state. I usually recommend that couples revisit their friendship system and try to rebuild their friendship and make deposits in the love bank. In a negative state the love bank is empty, even the relational story gets re-written in a negative light.
In Ephesians 5, the apostle Paul reminds husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the church, then he reminds them about the one flesh relationship. Paul tells husbands to feed and care for his wife. Often this is taken as physical care but it can relate to nourishing one’s spouse’s heart as well. And it is not just for husbands… in the culture of Paul’s day, this message was directed towards a husband. In our day when relationships are more equal, this advice is for all of us.
It is important to tend our relationships, to express care for our spouses, to listen to their stories and hear their dreams.
It is said, Love is like a flame, it must be tended.
A heart is like a flame, or a fire. Without fuel, the flame eventually burns up and is no more. Tending the fire will keep the love burning throughout one’s life. Yes… to some degree, feelings can come and go but tending the flame involves tending the relationship asking good, open-ended questions, expressing appreciation and fondness, turning toward your partner when they want to talk or be with you and putting deposits in the love bank.
These actions nourish sexuality, tend the flame and keep the fire burning.
Your assignment today is think of three things you appreciate about your spouse, your partner and tell them.
Also to ask one open-ended question and listen to their story.
Finally, leave your phones behind and your technology and turn toward your spouse or partner with a full listening ear.
From Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver. Pastor Faith is a trained, Seven Principles Program Educator.
Disclaimer: if a person is experiencing abuse, more steps may need to be taken. The person who is being abusive will need to work on his or her behavior in the care of a qualified therapist before re-engaging with a partner or spouse.